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Community organizations petition town council for public bathrooms downtown

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Cars drive down Franklin Street on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022. According to a petition submitted to the Chapel Hill Town Council, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area is a public restroom desert. The only centrally-located public bathroom in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area is located in the Carrboro Town Commons, about a mile from Franklin Street.

Multiple community organizations submitted a petition to the Chapel Hill Town Council in early March to provide at least four public bathrooms in downtown Chapel Hill in well-traveled, centrally-located areas. The petition also asks that the bathrooms be well-lit, supplied with hygiene products and well-maintained.

The Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, NEXT Chapel Hill-Carrboro, the Community Empowerment Fund and Build U.P. at UNC partnered to write and submit the petition, which was presented to the council by UNC master’s student Juliet Alegria

According to the petition, Chapel Hill and Carrboro are public restroom deserts. NEXT Board Member Allison De Marco said there are no downtown bathrooms available for use early in the morning or late in the evening.

An article written by Allison De Marco and fellow board member Molly De Marco states that the only centrally-located public bathroom available at all hours in Chapel Hill or Carrboro is located in the Carrboro Town Commons, which is about a mile from Franklin Street.

The public bathroom at Wallace Parking Deck is currently closed. IFC Navigation Team Lead Crystell Ferguson said the bathroom was shut down due to safety concerns. She said because the bathroom was located in an area that was not easily visible from walkways and streets, it was especially susceptible to illicit activities. There is now a portable toilet located outside the bathroom.

Two people waiting at a bus stop on Franklin Street said they rely on private businesses to use the bathroom. UNC sophomore Kristelle Ortiz said she doesn't know of anywhere on Franklin Street where she could use the bathroom without buying something.

Ferguson said the lack of public bathrooms downtown leaves people who are experiencing homelessness especially vulnerable. She said people can be charged with trespassing or indecent exposure for going to the bathroom in places where they are not permitted, and these charges then create more barriers preventing them from obtaining housing.

If people have nowhere to use the bathroom, Ferguson said, they will still use it somewhere

Nobody likes smelling urine or feces," she said. "Nobody wants to see it, so giving people clean and safe space to perform their natural bodily functions, that makes a more comfortable place for all of us to sit here, to go to work and live in.”

Alegria thinks public restrooms are an investment for the entire Chapel Hill community. She said they would especially benefit families with young children, older people, people with disabilities, transit operators, people experiencing homelessness and people who menstruate.

Build U.P. president and UNC junior Claire Hargrove said she thinks some of the pushback against the petition comes from negative perceptions of public bathrooms. 

“I think people generally have a misconception of [public restrooms] that they're just gross, and they're not needed and it's just a hassle for the Town to go in and clean that," Hargrove said.

Town council members Theodore Nollert and Camille Berry both support the plan.

“We have a need for public restrooms that are available, accessible, safe and maintained well,” Berry said.

A public restroom report was created by members of the community in 2019, but was never acted upon. The report included recommendations for types of bathrooms that could be implemented and how much they might cost, as well as information about the qualities community members wanted to see in public bathrooms.

The petition was referred by the town council to the mayor and town manager. No further official action has been taken nor potential location been chosen.

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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